Iconic Bluegrass Pioneer Ralph Stanley, Carter’s Brother & Leader Of The Clinch Mountain Boys, Dies At Age 89
Iconic bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley, the quiet, shy half of The Stanley Brothers who, following the sudden 1966 loss of his brother Carter persevered to achieve international fame, died on June 23, 2016 at age 89.
Following his brother’s death, he led Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys until a week before his passing, when he announced that he was giving the band to his son and performing partner Ralph Stanley II.
Banjo player and singer Stanley was revered as the senior surviving performer of the first generation of bluegrass musicians. His career spanned over seven decades, not even ending with his long-announced “retirement” at the end of 2014.
Although The Stanley Brothers were famously overlooked by the Country Music Hall Of Fame, Ralph Stanley was an early admittee to the International Bluegrass Hall Of Honor (now the International Bluegrass Hall Of Fame). He also held the most utilized Honorary Doctorate ever granted. The honor was bestowed in 1976 by Lincoln Memorial University, and added to his formal education that ended after only a few years in elementary school. For the remainder of his life, he was known and formally addressed by all true bluegrass fans as Dr. Ralph Stanley. Stanley was honored with a second Honorary Doctorate from Yale University in 2014, along with many other honors.
Onstage, Dr. Stanley was low-key, earnest, and sincere. He spoke slowly and carefully, always commanding the respect and attention of his fans between songs. The thrill for his listeners came from his banjo and his signature high lonesome vocals. His vocals cried and soared with the terrible pain of his lyrics. His most famous performance for the general public came in the Hollywood film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, when he sang the old tune Oh, Death. His other big hit, the banjo instrumental The Clinch Mountain Backstep, was best known to hard-core bluegrass fans. Along the way, he popularized Man Of Constant Sorrow and Rank Stranger, among many other bluegrass standards.
Ralph Stanley did not come easily into the bluegrass fold. For many years, he called his music “mountain music,” and strongly resisted having his music grouped with that of other bluegrass pioneers. In his later years, he changed course and fully embraced his critical role in having established and popularized the bluegrass genre.
Perhaps more than any of the other bluegrass creators, he rejected off-mountain musical influences, and played his music clear, clean, straight, simple, and unadorned. In important ways, his music was significantly more “hard-core” than other famous progenitors of the bluegrass style, including the Father Of Bluegrass Music Bill Monroe.
Dr. Ralph first performed in church and, with his brother, enjoyed a long pre-fame run on radio stations WNVA and WCYB (”The Farm And Fun Hour” at noon each weekday) along the Tennessee/Virginia border. These 1950s programs established the band and led it to national stature.
Ralph Edmund Stanley was born February 25, 1927 in the rural community of Big Spraddle Creek, Dickenson County, Virginia. He is survived by his wife Jimmi Stanley and his children, Lisa Stanley Marshall, Tonya Armes Stanley and Ralph Stanley II.